The Valley of Horses: Jean M. Auel

★★★

Earth’s Children: Book II

It’s time for the second instalment of Ayla’s adventures: a book that significantly broadens out the world which was introduced to us in The Clan of the Cave Bear. Here we finally glimpse cultures beyond those of the Clan, but we also spend much more time with Ayla, watching as circumstances force her to make leaps of intuition ever more daring and more successful. I can’t say this novel was quite as smooth going as the first, but towards the end something clicked and I now find myself eager to head on to the third. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Spoilers will follow, so proceed with caution.

Ayla has been cast out from her Clan, cursed to a living death and exiled from her son Durc and from all those whom she has come to think of as her family. Striking northwards, she has only one thought: to follow Iza’s dying wishes and to find the Others, those like herself. But where can she begin? The country is vast and the Others, if indeed they are there at all, are nowhere to be found. Alone and vulnerable in the face of nature, Ayla must learn to overcome the conditioning she received in the Clan, and to use all her skills to stay alive. When she eventually discovers sanctuary in a sheltered valley, she begins the hard process of making a home for herself – a challenge which leads her versatile brain to experiment with ever more innovative solutions. With the arrival of animal company from some unexpected quarters, Ayla is close to developing a substitute family, but despite her contentment she can’t forget the vow she made to Iza: to find the Others, to settle in a community where everyone else will be like her, and perhaps to find a mate of her own.

Somewhere far to the west, two young brothers are setting out on a Journey, a traditional rite of passage by which young people explore the world and make contact with neighbour tribes before either returning home to settle, or finding a mate among one of the peoples they meet. It is through Thonolan and Jondalar that we encounter the beliefs and values of a race born from the same root as the Neanderthals, but very different: aggressive, curious and egalitarian. While the Clan worships male spirits and totems, the people revere the force of the Great Mother; while the Clan is hidebound by tradition and custom, the people are more flexible and open; and, while the Clan expects women to accept the advances of any man, the people view physical love as a special and sacred part of life. As they travel along the shores of the Great Mother River, Jondalar and Thonolan are hosted by several different tribes, until fate brings them to the Cave of the Sharamudoi. Here, in a blended community of chamois hunters and fishermen, the brothers believe they may have found somewhere to call home. But the Great Mother has other plans for them…

Auel’s matter-of-fact style of writing suits much of the book. There are times when her descriptions of flint-knapping, spear-making or hunting are so detailed they could almost act as an instruction manual. It’s not necessarily emotionally engaging, but it is interesting as an imaginative reconstruction of ancient life. But she stumbles a bit when she applies the same matter-of-fact description to several rather extensive sex scenes. I knew to expect this, thanks to Silke’s kind warning on my Clan of the Cave Bear post, but even so I thought there was an uncomfortable disconnect between the rather detached descriptions of everyday life, and the very thorough technical descriptions of lovemaking.

It may be that, in a culture like this, sex was as free and frequent as Auel describes. In a society devoted to worship of a great feminine power, it may not be surprising that such worship took place through physical contact. Auel suggests that people are not yet generally aware of the connection between sex and procreation, so you can’t argue that sex is aimed at increasing the Great Mother’s fecundity. Nevertheless, I don’t need to know every single detail of what one character does to another. Nor do I need to be constantly reminded of Jondalar’s girth and prowess. Or the fact that women are smitten as soon as they look at him. Or his incredibly caring, gentle and satisfying abilities. Of course, this may be a personal thing – I get bored if a sex scene goes on for more than one page.

For me, the book sparked into life with the meeting between Ayla and Jondalar. This wasn’t because I wanted them to get together as such (I’d already had quite enough of Jondalar’s ‘prodigious manhood‘ by this point, thank you very much). Instead I was fascinated by the process by which they tried to communicate: how do you begin when the other person not only can’t speak your language, but comes from a culture so entirely different that you don’t even have the same concept of speech? And here I felt Auel returned to the culture-clash elements that made the first book so interesting. She was good at teasing out the ways in which unspoken customs and taboos can cause confusion, because they are so deeply ingrained in us that we can’t believe someone else doesn’t have the same understanding. Moreover, she captured the delight of shared invention, and the competition that comes with companionship.

There’s something faintly unsettling, though, about how perfect both Ayla and Jondalar are. They are basically strapping examples of the Aryan Übermensch: both tall, muscular, blond and blue-eyed and, of course, both breathtakingly beautiful. I would, I confess, have warmed to them more readily if one of them had been brunette, or had a squint. I also had to stretch my credulity to believe that, between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, Arya discovers single-handed how to strike fire from flint, how to domesticate animals, how to ride a horse and how to make a travois, let alone taming and riding a cave lion. Admittedly there was no internet back then, so people had to make their own amusements…

If we are genuinely meant to see Ayla as a real person, then her successive leaps of brilliance don’t quite feel plausible to me: she’s just a little too good to be true. But is there another answer? Could Ayla be understood as a representative microcosm of her culture’s potential for creation and invention? Is she actually meant to be a symbol of the human race itself, rising out of the ancient customs of the Neanderthals but moving beyond them with ever more advanced technological concepts and, through her dominance, ultimately becoming a threat to the very ones who once nurtured her? Could we look at it this way, do you think, or am I getting slightly too caught up in the abstract?

I have been a little critical here, but mainly because I’m trying to reconcile things I did like with aspects of the book that challenged me. While I didn’t enjoy this as much as the first book, Auel still has a captivating ability to conjure up the lineaments of this lost world, and I’m interested to see where it goes next. One thing is for sure. If Ayla is this brilliant by her late teens then we certainly have many more advances coming up. Would it be too much to predict that she also ends up inventing the wheel?

Buy the book

Last in this series: The Clan of the Cave Bear

Next in this series: The Mammoth Hunters

10 thoughts on “The Valley of Horses: Jean M. Auel

  1. Isi says:

    lol
    You got bored with Jondalar’s manhood??????
    But that’s the best of the book. Not the book, THE SERIES! hahaha
    Consider yourself warned, because sex scenes are to be all over the rest of the book, including a love triangle with another man in the next book 😉 (with a manhood as prodigious as Jondalar’s, of course!).

    This book is very different from the first; and you are right about Ayla being the pioneer in almost everything to be invented and achieved – domesticate animals and such. I also think that the author wanted to put together the baby steps of the humans of that time in this character. She even is ahead of her time in relation to “the Others”, but again, she is a human with no boundaries in her brain, living alone and knowing how to survive. The way she hunts the horse is amazing, I mean, the process to do it!

    I remember very well the moment when Ayla and Jondalar first attempted to “talk”; she kneeling before him, waiting for the touch in her shoulder that never came. I mean, I read this book more than 10 years ago and I still remember clearly some scences, so I think the author did a great job creatin momentum here and there.

    Well, I’m really enjoying reading your reviews of the series, because it makes me remember the books and the time when I read them 🙂

    PS. Remember: the third is good, but the fourth is a pain.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      I consider myself well and truly warned, thank you Isi. 😉 Essentially, I find it rather amusing that the very first man Ayla ever meets isn’t short and scrawny, with a bit of a limp and a rather awkward way with women, but a buff man-god who can give women orgasms just by looking at them (with his expressive deep blue-violet eyes, don’t forget) and whose love is too much for a normal woman to handle. (For those who have not read the book, I am not making this up. Really. It actually goes beyond parody.)

      It is hard not to spend a lot of time pointing and sniggering at the overdone love scenes, but you are also right to point out the poignant bits. The scenes in which Ayla waits for the gestures which never come give such a powerful sense of frustration and bewilderment. Auel also dealt well with the way in Ayla and Jondolar have to tackle their very different, culturally-ingrained opinions of Neanderthals.

      There is much to interest here, even if I can’t say that I *love* the books. I just hope we don’t progress too much further into the realms of explicit, soft-focus lovemaking though, otherwise Auel is going to start getting some Hard Stares and may find her star ratings docked.

  2. whatmeread says:

    I really didn’t enjoy this series because I thought it was ridiculous that one person was made responsible for several things, like figuring out how to use fire. Still, it’s been a very long time since I read it. I think I read the first two and then stopped.

  3. Sandra says:

    Oh dear me, I am chuckling away to myself here 😀 And you are doing a great job of persuading me that I simply have to find the time to re-read these books! Not just for the prodigious manhood and the blue-violet eyes but because you’re reminding me of so much I have forgotten – and drawing out things I doubt I ever saw in the first place. I scarcely remember Jondolar’s manhood for heaven’s sake, so it’s hardly surprising that much else is lost to me!

    I recall enjoying this second book a lot. (Probably swept away at the time by the gorgeous Jondolar!) I also remember, as with all the books, finding the style of writing flat and factual. The descriptions of flint-knapping were too detailed for me, for example. But I did get a sense of Ayla’s isolation so Auel must have got some emotion into her ‘reporting’.

    I’ve been thinking back to when I read these books, which I did as they came out. I was busy producing children and studying for a degree so I can forgive myself for missing a lot of what was going on. I know that having eagerly grabbed the final book when it was released in 2002, I couldn’t get on with it at all – because of the writing style. I think my own understanding of what I want from a book had evolved significantly by then, and I’m and I’m still essentially drawn by novels painted in lyrical language, so Auel’s style may still be a barrier.

    But I am so tempted to try them again. Though it will take me a lot longer to get through each book than it’s taking you!

    Thanks for a great review – and for the chuckles!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      You’re very welcome. Glad to be of service! But you shock me by saying that you had forgotten Jondalar’s greatest asset. I was under the impression he was once seen, never forgotten… 😉

      Judging from the star ratings I’ve seen on various sites, it looks as if lots of people felt let down by the final novel, so perhaps that wasn’t down to your taste changing, but to some concrete visible change in style in that last book? It’ll be interesting to see how it flows, reading all the books in one go.

      Go on. Give in to temptation. You know you want to…

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